The Great War and the Great Image: J.C.Leyendecker's World War I Covers for the Saturday Evening Post

By Martin, Richard | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Spring 1997 | Go to article overview
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The Great War and the Great Image: J.C.Leyendecker's World War I Covers for the Saturday Evening Post


Martin, Richard, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


In the course of four poignant years between 1914 and 1918, more than ten million men died, commensurate to a generation. Even greater was a loss of hope, the defeat as much for the victors as for the vanquished in knowing that the world would not readily be made safe for democracy. Of course, World War I's deep destruction in Europe touched America less, but from the first shockwaves of the Sarajevo assassination through the armistice and League of Nations, the War was an ever-present horror for Americans. The foremost American illustrator of the day, J. C. Leyendecker, created in imagery for advertising clients and in magazine covers, especially those for The Saturday Evening Post, a stirring record of the socalled Great War. As always, Leyendecker created great images that might consolidate the feelings of many people. With respect to the First World War, he gave little image to the War's cataclysm, but he gave instead narrative, empathetic example, and a sense of optimism that was a war diary of profound hope and incorrigible belief in, if not civilization, the individual. In brutal times, Leyendecker believed and, in influential images, gave cause to believe in single figures and simple stories to keep faith in humankind.

Leyendecker was a consummate patriot. He offered a compassionate chronicle for World War I and later reported on the Second World War. Of the latter, his habitual image of Baby New Year arrived with worldly engagement in the 1940s. His January 4, 1941, cover, for example, delivers a squalling new year held in the armored fist of Europe under fascism and Nazism. Two years later, on the cover of the January 2, 1945, issue, with America active in the war, Baby New Year is enlisted in the fight against the forces of evil as the baby's bayonet gashes the swastika. In these instances, war is abstracted in deference to the icon of the Baby New Year; these are not Murrow broadcasts, these are not specific tales, but they are representations of the hope implicit in birth and the new.

Likewise, within days of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, Leyendecker was providing a Saturday Evening Post cover representing American military power in celebration of July 4, 1914 (Fig. 1). To be sure, this cover was indubitably in progress before the assassi-nation, but the coincidence of these armed men could only constitute a sign of power and preparedness in concert with its time. Customarily, Leyendecker had represented the Fourth of July in terms of history, often providing Colonial patriots and ragamuffin fifers and drummers. That in 1914 he seized his own time is, in some intuitional ways at least, an awareness of the tremulous world of Europe. If the American temper was one of detachment from the turmoil in Europe, it was a splendid isolation founded in a bravado of military power.

Yet Europe's war would inexorably affect America, even in 1914. The cover of the October 24, 1914, Saturday Evening Post (Fig. 2) conveys the unavoidable message of the invasion of neutral countries in summer 1914 as a pig-tailed child witnesses the despair of a wooden-shoed European woman who has received the tragic news of a lost loved one. Not only does this most passionate cover suggest the narrative of such stories as are contained within the issue, but constitutes an allegory of war involvement. If the watchful child is the witnessing innocence of America, she looks onto a scene of despair and sadness that cannot be ignored. But this particular cover is a distinct exception. Leyendecker remained detached as long as America was not officially involved in the war in Europe. For many readers of The Saturday Evening Post, the Great War was still their tragedy and their problem in Europe, not something that America was a part of. President Wilson was, after all, insisting upon peace. Finally, on April 6, 1917, America declared war and the careful neutrality ended. America was immediately engaged in the war with troops arriving in Europe in the summer of 1917.

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